SOME REFLECTIONS ON THE 1948-1989 ERA IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA


Whenever I find myself at a loss, I start poring through the writings of my friend and mentor Tommy Mandl, of blessed memory.  In his opus, I always find wisdom, and experience inner peace, as if he were still with me.

Here is a piece I had translated for Tommy shortly before his death in 2007.  Though it deals specifically with the Communist era in Czechoslovakia, it applies to any situation that involves a battle for freedom and human dignity.

Some Reflections on the 1948-1989 Era in Czechoslovakia

            The results of 41 years of Communist overlordship in Czechoslovakia are now known well enough.  They include the following grim arithmetic:

–                            234 people were executed for political reasons,

–                         4,000 people lost their lives in concentration camps and prisons,

–                            300 people died during interrogation,

–                             176 people were shot on the western borders while trying to flee,

–                               88 people died on the electric fences on the border,

–                     280,000 people were sentenced for political reasons,

–                      80,000 people were dragged off to forced labor camps without sentence,

–                      60,000 had to serve out their military obligations in “auxiliary units,”

–                     244,000 people emigrated,

–                     300,000 people were persecuted in their jobs or while studying,

–                     281 people were forcibly taken to the USSR from Bohemia and Moravia,

–                     100,000 (approximately) Czechoslovak citizens were forcibly taken to the USSR from Slovakia when the USSR annexed Ruthenia,

–                         1,500 monks and nuns were interned; many of them were imprisoned.

(Source:  The New Homeland, March 11, 2000, Canada)

The system was initially conceived as a result of economic considerations but it left behind economies that were incapable of survival, much less competition.  This is a devastating realization, and yet there are people in the former “people’s democracies” who bemoan the shift toward freedom.  The essence of their argument is: “Not everything was bad under the old system.”  This argument bears a grim resemblance to the argument used by Old and New Nazis throughout the world: “The Third Reich gave people jobs.  Besides, the drug problem was unknown.”  The Communists’ arguments are quite similar: “Much was done to develop the industry, the technical sector, and the infrastructure of the country.”

Such calculus postulates that crimes are permissible as long as they serve “progress.”  Once you accept this, then you can also accept its qualitative formulations and mathematical quantification.  In practical terms, that means something like this: 1.38 people may be executed even though they are really innocent as long as a chain coal cutter in a strip mining operation is successfully put into operation.  Since you now generally accept such reasoning, you can naturally replace the 1.38 executed people with, say, 21.6195 fatalities in a concentration camp or prison.

Even more fascinating than these repulsive calculations is the question of why anyone – apart of its direct beneficiaries – would mourn the passing of a system that belongs in the dustbin of history?  The answers are as manifold as they are sobering, for instance: “In those days, an apartment cost a fraction of what it costs today…”  This was of course true, but only if you ignore the fact that it only applied to those who already had apartments.  Those who did not, depending on their relative position in the hierarchy, may well have faced a lifelong task.

A second typical argument states: “In those days, we didn’t have to worry about losing our jobs.”  Here too, you must close your eyes too much.  This was only true if the tool of your trade was a shovel or a pickaxe.  If your work contained any intellectual or financial rewards, maximum existential uncertainty was its essential feature.

The likeliest explanation for this selective memory involves the tender mercies of a guilty conscience.  How else can you explain the wholesale amnesia of the repeated purges that were an essential feature of the so-called “people’s democracies?”  For those of you who are too young to remember, let me give you a quick illustration: interrogation commissions would show up in all workplaces at irregular, unpredictable intervals to interrogate all workers.  The results of these hearings would form the basis for deciding whether a person would keep or lose his job.  Those who lost their jobs had no right to appeal the commission’s decision.

In a state where you can take legal action to protect your human rights, the person who had lost a job may take steps against his firing, or else he may look elsewhere for work for which he is qualified.  In a “people’s democracy,” neither course of action was possible.  There was no appeal process and, moreover, the verdict immediately became part of a person’s political dossier the most important part of which was the so-called “moral-political profile.”  When you applied for another job, the first thing your prospective employer would review was your political dossier.  If there was any mention of firing for political reasons, you would never be hired even if the new business was literally dying for people with your qualifications.  This rule applied throughout a “people’s democracy.”  The practical result of being fired for political reasons was that you were forever relegated to a lower stratum of society.  This also affected your family, since these things were done wholesale.  Your spouse could be prosecuted, your children could lose the opportunity to advance in their studies or to get a job for which they were qualified.

In such a situation, when a normal life has been made all but impossible for you, a natural reaction would be to seek your fortunes abroad.  Yet this option never existed for these people.  There was no way to leave legally, and illegal attempts were punishable by death or long prison sentences.  The utter revocation of the fundamental human right to free movement by the “people’s democracies” had one interesting consequence: the creation of the so-called “travel class.”

People who have had the good fortune to live in freedom all their lives may find this description of everyday life in a “people’s democracy” grotesque.  Yet my description is a mere fraction of the total story.  I had mentioned the “travel class.”  My use of this term might evoke the image of a group of privileged people who were able to travel abroad any time they wanted.  But this was not so.  A member of the “travel class” could travel only when sent on an official trip.  The valid passport in his possession by no means translated to an opportunity to travel at will.  Only an exit visa, a document rather stingily handed out, could let you out.

Once abroad, a member of the “travel class” had to conduct himself with the greatest of care.  Above all, he had to avoid all contact with any real or imagined enemy of the state, which meant primarily anyone who had left the country legally or illegally after the 1948 Communist putsch.  In addition, one could always become entangled in an affair by an agent provocateur.  The least harmful outcome of such entanglement was usually the loss of the privileged status.

What I have described to you thus far were relatively harmless methods of exercising control over people.  The most powerful one in the state’s armamentarium was the simple fact that the spouse or children of a “travel class” member could never leave the country.  They had no passports.  These hostages in the hands of the state were the most efficient way to exert control over a “travel class” member abroad.  Again–the family as hostages.  In fact, the family was a theme that played an important role in both “great” ideologies of the 20th century – for pseudobiological reasons (“race”) in the case of National Socialism, for pseudosociological reasons (“class origin”) in the case of Communism.

But even now, the portrayal of daily life in a “people’s democracy” is incomplete.  This is because the right to free movement was not the only right abolished by the oppressor.  Mere days following the seizure of power, the freedom of speech and of information likewise disappeared without a trace.  We are not just talking about critical commentary or outright refusal to accept the system here: even skepticism, irony, and “insufficient enthusiasm” were punishable.  All these findings would inexorably worm their way into your political dossier and would exert grave effects in your personal and professional life as well as in the lives of your family.

But let us return one more time to those who cast a nostalgic eye at the past.  Another common theme is that capitalism is the cause of everything that can be characterized as by the Latin phrase “homo homini lupus” or, as Robert Burns had so aptly rendered it for us, “man’s inhumanity to man.”  Another version of this theme is “bellum omnium contra omnes,” or “all warring against all.”  Someone affected with nostalgia for the past might tell you: “We didn’t have as much luxury in those days, but things were more humanistic.”

This is probably the most widespread of all the nostalgic themes, and also the one farthest away from the truth.  From the very beginning of its existence, the new regime had exerted control over the citizenry through an extensive network of informers who worked for the STB, or State Secret Security.  These informers were obtained by the following means:

a.                  material enticements

b.                  appeals to the “historic consciousness at a time of revolutionary change in society”

c.                  threats or intimidation

d.                  repression

e.                  threats against family members (e.g. threats of “accidents”)

f.                    a combination of any of the foregoing

The massive and ubiquitous – if invisible – presence of the Secret Service throughout society had very powerful effects.  Nearly everyone knew that even the most intimate details of your life could appear in the political dossier, but since the informer’s identity remained unknown, you had to – and did – repress this awareness from consciousness.  What was left was a kind of diffuse feeling of mistrust because the STB’s influence was so pervasive that even a member of your own family could deliver you to them.  Never forget, for instance, that the wives of the defendants in the political show trials usually screamed for “the most severe punishment for these traitors.”  Since several of these wives had taken their own lives after their letters were published in the chief Party newspaper, Rudé Právo, it had to be clear to even the most naïve people that these demands were elicited by the most brutal threats imaginable.

So, given the historical facts, how is nostalgia even imaginable?  A combination of several factors can explain this phenomenon.  One of the consequences of freedom is the need to make decisions, even basic ones like: “Where will I find work?”  For many people, this was a totally new situation–in the “people’s democracies,” you were simply assigned a job, even if it was often work you did not like and, just as often, in a place where you did not want to live.  These were things that abruptly disappeared under the onslaught of the new circumstance of freedom.  What made matters even worse was the fact that so many of the production facilities in the former Warsaw Pact countries were rendered incapable of competition.

One of the most instructive paradoxes of the twentieth century is that the two “great” ideologies, National Socialism and Communism, were based on axioms that were completely divorced from reality.  The National Socialists insisted that armed struggle is the highest criterion for judging the superior capacity of a race to survive — and were themselves destroyed in just such a struggle.  The Communists justified their planet-wide class struggle by invoking the fundamental “law” of historical materialism.  This insisted that the only quantity the continually grows throughout human history is the productivity of work.  This growth in the productivity of work periodically demands a qualitative change in the means of production, sometimes through revolution.  Thus capitalism had consigned feudalism to the dustbin of history, and so socialism will dispatch capitalism without a trace.  Yet the final collapse of the Soviet Empire without any force from within or without is ultimately due to the fact that the productivity of work throughout the Soviet realm was pitiful in comparison to the productivity of developed countries of the Free World.  The primary reason for poor growth in productivity in the Soviet realm was the strongly centralized, rigid, and inevitably anti-innovative planning system.  Thus, both of the “great” twentieth century systems had failed utterly when measured by their own criteria.

The pitiful productivity of work in the Soviet realm created economies that were incapable of survival and competition.  These economies were inherited by the post-socialist nations.  And with this inheritance, they were supposed to compete in the worldwide marketplace of the global economy!  At the same time, the strictly centralized management of all labor processes had disappeared; and now, when people had to make their own decisions, such a centralized system began to look like a benevolent charity.

This is not exactly a new phenomenon.  It seems to have resurfaced throughout human history.  One of the first illustrations of this initially incomprehensible nostalgia for the past is the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.  As they wandered through the wilderness for decades, suffering great privations, many of them became dispirited.  Forgotten was the slavery that had driven them into the wilderness in the first place; instead, the fleshpots of Egypt began to figure most prominently in the fond recollections of the faint-hearted.

Millennia separate the nostalgia of Exodus and of today, yet both are governed by the same psychological principle: when an almost complete lack of freedom prevails, the passionate yearning for freedom in many – but not all – people becomes so overpowering that it overshadows all other motivations.  As soon as freedom asserts itself, other motivations come to the fore, as for instance interest in material goods.  Suddenly, freedom has become an axiomatic condition.

There are still other reasons for this nostalgia.  People yearn, for instance, for the psychological and pedagogical goals of the Communist Party, even if these contained glaring contradictions.  A nation is told that it is anointed and has an appointment with destiny as long as it fulfills the following requirements.  First, the minions must quake with fear before authority and see this as being right.  Second, the minions must love authority, in this case the political leadership, with an ardent love.  Third, they must feel implacable hatred against “Anglo-American imperialism and its ally, Zionism.”  Fourth, all minions must be constantly prepared to denounce any and all of their fellow citizens – naturally including members of their own family – thereby possibly delivering them to the gallows.  Finally, all minions must perceive all of the above conditions as extraordinary happiness.

The measures employed to reach these goals essentially consisted, as already mentioned, of the abolition of human rights like freedom of information and of speech.  Specifically, this meant that expression of any opinion contrary to the official line could be prosecuted and/or punished.  At the same time, all mass media were leveled and all sources of outside information choked off.  Foreign transmitters were jammed, foreign magazines, newspapers, records, sheet music, and books were not allowed into the country.  The effect of these measures was eloquently described by George Orwell in his book 1984: “Newspeak is the only language whose vocabulary becomes smaller every year.”  Translated into everyday language, this means that all concepts connected with or derived from fundamental human rights and freedoms began to fade from the consciousness of the average citizen of a “people’s democracy.”

Drastic measures like abolishing human freedom were not the only thing affecting the psyche of the people.  The practices of the ruling class had a major effect as well.  For instance, people had to accept, without perceiving a contradiction, that a great hero of the moment was suddenly judged to have always been “a bloody hound of the bourgeoisie” the next split second (Tito, 1948).  To give another example of this kind of transformation, someone sentenced to life imprisonment could suddenly become First Secretary of the Communist Party and President (Gustav Husak, 1975).

The arbitrary decisions of the Party combined with the unpredictable, yet ever-present and life-threatening mass measures (the purges) called for a new type of conduct.  People came to understand quickly that perfect conformity, at least verbally, was the essential prerequisite for keeping their very jobs, not to mention any kind of personal betterment.  This did not mean that the majority had discarded all their previous convictions instantly; initially, total conformity was necessary primarily in all official contacts.  Yet the systematic penetration of all layers of society by state security agents made it more and more difficult to determine when one had to parrot the Party line and when one could voice one’s true opinions.  Thus, new strategies came into play: for instance, it ultimately became advisable not to voice one’s opinions even in private.

A whole new code of conduct arose.  Certain things could only be said at home; and yet there was a gradual disappearance of a sense of wrongdoing that accompanies the speaking of a lie in a place where human rights and freedoms exist.  This was an expression of a simple formula for self-preservation: “If you want to hang on to your job or if you want to get promoted, you have to adhere to the latest Party line.”  And so the question comes up again: why nostalgia?

A few things must be said to complete the picture.  The Party’s monopoly on the freedom of expression and the blockage of all foreign media did have the desired manipulative effect on the minds of many people.  But soon, two additional effects began to manifest themselves since the dictatorship of the Party simply lasted too long.  Many people are capable of brave resistance for a short period of time.  But if you find yourself in a situation that seems to be definitively hopeless, and if you perceive that you can improve your life by conformity, the will to resist is crippled.  And the longer the Party’s dictatorship lasted, the more distant the prospect of restoring human rights became.  The fundamental reality during the latest phase of this era, especially after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968, became the following: “Conditions here can only change if the situation in the Soviet Union changes.  And that will never happen.  So why should we spend our lives waging a hopeless and self-destructive struggle?”

Let me add a few words about what I suspect is the most important thing of all.  Both of the two “great” ideologies of the twentieth century, National Socialism and Communism, started with the fundamental psychological finding that people who got their hands dirty in the service of the ideology will be forced to serve the system until the bitter end, since it would be practically impossible suddenly to join those whom one they had oppressed for so long.  The logical conclusion was that the totalitarian regimes had to do everything they could to get as many of their subjects as possible to get their hands dirty by serving the regime.  Please note that getting one’s hands dirty does not necessarily mean getting one’s hands bloody.  The spectrum of guilt in this context ranges from overenthusiastic praise that the oppressor soaks up all the way to the denunciation that sends a victim to the gallows.

Once the tyranny collapsed, even the most innocuous acts of collaboration such as praising the regime excessively had become such as liability that total silence about the past was seen as the best possible solution.  This is the reason for the protracted silence in West Germany, even in the homes; this is the reason why education in history in West German schools frequently ended with the year 1945.  This is the reason for most people’s resounding silence in the former “people’s democracies” today.  To paraphrase Wittgenstein: “If you cannot say something positive about something, don’t say anything at all.”

One more remark about the accomplices of ideology.  These people were markedly different from the slaveholders and feudal overlords of the past.  The old rulers disposed of private means that made them more or less independent of central authority.  But this was not the case with the new ruling caste.  All their immeasurable wealth, all their privileges belonged to them only by the grace of the Party, since they were collective possessions.  (You can read all about this in George Orwell’s Animal Farm or Milovan Djilas’s The New Class, by the way.)  They could lose all the wealth, all their privileges, in a split second.  With any luck, they would afterwards only be demoted (not jailed or executed) and turn into poor slobs just like all the other subjects whom they had been able to order about before that fateful split second.  And the ruled knew exactly who the members of the ruling caste were.  No wonder, then, that members of this caste actively supported all repressive measures.  It was in their own interest to do so.  And so, perhaps, it is no great surprise after all that they weep for the good old times.

Ideologies offer a drug of extraordinary potency, namely the illusion that if you follow, you are one with the inevitable flow of history, with fate, with the world spirit.  Democracy has nothing comparable to offer: it is the most boring thing there is.  At best, democracy offers hard, systematic work, endless contention with large and small worries, successes and failures.  Democracy is disillusioning in the best sense of the word, since it does not pretend to be anything other than a human creation.  Yet it is the only system in which the individual human life has intrinsic worth.  Democracy deserves every sacrifice we make to it.

Herbert Thomas Mandl

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About Michael J. Kubat

I'm a grumpy Czech-born clinical social worker who is vitally interested in the survival in the United States as a viable democracy and a beacon of hope for the rest of the world.
This entry was posted in Czechoslovakia, democracy, dictatorship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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